The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has raided the home of a News Corp journalist after her report on a top-secret government proposal to digitally spy on Australian citizens, in a move the media organisation labelled an “outrageous and heavy handed” overreach.
The Daily Telegraph reports national political editor Annika Smethurst was met this morning by AFP officers who issued a warrant permitting them to search her laptop and mobile phone.
The search comes after her April 2018 report on leaked communications between the Departments of Home Affairs and Defence, who discussed changing legislation to allow the Australian Signal Directorate (ASD) to secretly access the emails, financial records, and text messages of Australians.
Notably, those communiques detailed how the ASD would be able to snoop through the online data of Australian citizens without detection and without issuing a warrant.
As it stands, only the AFP and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) are permitted to snoop through your online info, and only with a warrant. The ASD is currently restricted to spying on offshore targets.
The government did not comment on the letters at the time, and legislative reforms discussed in those communications were not put into action.
Smethurst’s report included an image of a letter Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo sent to Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty, which covered preliminary plans to broaden the ASD’s remit.
In a statement released this afternoon, the AFP said the search pertained to an “alleged unauthorised disclosure of national security information,” which they will allege “undermines Australia’s national security.”
The AFP added that no charges are expected to be laid today.
In turn, a News Corp spokesperson said Smethurst was clearly operating in the public interest, and that the search was a obvious effort to discourage journalists from digging into the story.
News Corp Australia has expressed the most serious concerns about the willingness of governments to undermine the Australian public’s right to know about important decisions Governments are making that can and will impact ordinary Australian citizens. What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia. This will chill public interest reporting.
The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the national union covering the journalism industry, has also condemned the search. MEAA Media president Marcus Strom questioned the timing of the raid and expressed concerns for its potential impact on press freedom.
It is an outrage that more than a year after the story was reported in April 2018 but just days after the federal election result, the Federal Police are now raiding a journalist’s home in order to seize documents, computers and a mobile phone in order to track down the source.
Smethurst, a two-time Walkley Award winner, has not publicly commented on the raid, save a retweet of her employer’s statement.